Chris Cullum, Columnist

This past weekend, NHL training camps opened in preparation for the 2011-12 season. The opening of camps signifies not only the impending season, but also the beginning signs of a league returning to normalcy after a nightmarish offseason. It actually started during the postseason in May when New York Ranger Derek Boogaard was found dead at 28. In the second half of August, the league lost two more players: Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, ages 27 and 35, respectively. The biggest blow came Sept. 7, when a plane carrying all but one of the members of the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crashed in Russia, killing 44 players (many of whom spent time in the NHL), coaches and crewmembers.

Another cloud hanging over the league, albeit not one as emotionally devastating as any of the ones listed above, is the health of its best player, Sidney Crosby. He hasn’t played since January after suffering concussions in back-to-back games, and his ability to play this season is still unknown (although he did participate in a 70-minute skating session the first day of camp, which is more than encouraging). Losing Crosby for much of this season would be a big blow to a league that depends on star power way more than the other three major sports. Also, while all indications are that he will make a full recovery, he’s only one hit to the head away from missing more time and, more importantly, further jeopardizing his health.

It’s been a rough few months since the Bruins hoisted the Stanley Cup. Yet, if the future is any indication, this NHL season has a chance to be special.

By far the biggest thing the NHL has going for it this season is the NBA lockout. The seasons for each sport are nearly identical in duration and assuming the NBA will miss games due to the lockout (a very likely scenario), its only real competition will be college basketball, which isn’t even that tough to compete with because of annual roster turnover and less than inspiring non-conference schedules. College basketball doesn’t really pick up until conference play begins after the New Year, which, coincidentally, coincides with the winding down of the football seasons. That gives the NHL a solid two-month monopoly on weeknight sports, which equates to 25-30 games. Their television contract is a major hindrance to their potential exposure, but games are still available locally. That could offer a huge windfall of new casual fans; hockey would dominate the “I have a few hours to kill tonight and feel like watching a game, what’s on?” demographic, plus sports bars and the like. Taking into account the rising postseason television ratings and hockey’s unparalleled ability to suck in a casual viewer and it’s a recipe for potential growth.

Looking at everything the NHL has to offer, keeping all of these hypothetical new fans should be the easy part. Consider the following: the duration of games is much easier to predict because they aren’t bogged down with commercials or excessive timeouts and they have a definitive time constraint unlike baseball; nothing in sports beats overtime hockey; it already has a marquee event in the Winter Classic; it has the best professional sports postseason (obviously nothing can touch March Madness or even the College World Series); and it boasts the best championship trophy of any sport.

In a much simpler context, the relationship between the NHL and potential fans is one based on need. The NHL needs to get back to business after a draining offseason and sports fans need something to watch in lieu of the NBA.

Hey, all beautiful relationships have to start somewhere.